One aspect of Christmas (including Protestant Christmas) that I always enjoyed was the increasing attention given to the Mother of Jesus. Christmas cards feature her; hymns of “Mary, meek and mild” are sung. And even though such popular treatments will fall far short of the theological fullness of the one who gave birth to God the Word, it has always, nevertheless, been comforting to hear her get at least some public mention.
In the Orthodox world public mention is the least of the matter. There is a recognition of the radical implications contained in the phrase, “Behold, the handmaiden of the Lord, be done unto me according to Thy word.” These implications grew in the Church – they are already there in Scripture for those who had the eyes to see – finally to a point where they spilled over into the prayers and praises of the people of God. At some point, at least by the early 4th century, she was being hymned as the “Theotokos,” the “one who gave birth to God.” It was the only fitting title, if Christ was who the Church said He was, fully God and fully man. There was no lack of subtlety in the Church’s understanding. Anyone capable of writing on the exact nature of the hypostatic union is also capable of being quite precise about the meaning and limits of the word “Theotokos.”
But a clear understanding developed: there could be no incarnate Word of God that was not accompanied by the Mother of the Word. No incarnation is possible without the “yes” of Mary. And this yes is significant and not accidental.
Fathers of the Church, studying Scripture saw not only what was said in the New Testament, but saw as well what was “almost said” in the Old Testament. That the Word would become Man and dwell among us is largely hidden in figure and allusion in the Old Testament. Its meaning never becomes clear until it is reread in the light of Christ Jesus. So, the language of Mary would not be clear until read in that same light.
If He was the Light of the World, she was the Lampstand (as in the Temple). Indeed if He is God among us, she is the Temple. She was the Bush who was on fire and yet not burned – in that she was the Virgin who gave birth and yet remained a virgin. She was the Ark of the Covenant containing not the tablets of the law, but the Law of God incarnate.
And the figures go on. Orthodoxy does not worship Mary. She is not God, she is not such as can be worshipped. But among all of God’s created order there is nothing, no one, like her. Her obedience and humility are a fitting throne for God. Her devotion at the Cross was what the devotion of the brave disciples should have been. This woman, was “bone of His bone and flesh of His flesh” or rather, “He was bone of her bone and flesh of her flesh.
In some small ways our culture will acknowledge her this year. They are small ways because without the fullness of dogma she cannot be properly extolled.
But every week, every day in the year, she is remembered in the Orthodox Church with the ancient hymn, Axion Estin.
It is truly meet to bless you, Theotokos,
Ever blessed and most pure and the mother of our God.
More honorable than the cherubim,
More glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim,
Without corruption you gave birth to God the Word,
True Theotokos, we magnify you!
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